Cast: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Brigitte Lin, Jacky Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Charlie Yeung
Running time: 93mins
Year: 1994 / 2008 (redux version)
The lowdown: Wong Kar-wai’s stunning 1994 film is (in)famous for its troubled gestation. Taking over two years to reach the screen, Wong made his international breakthrough movie, ‘Chungking Express’, as a breather from this when editing spiraled out of control. Assembling a who’s-who of New Wave Hong Kong action cinema, Wong’s meditation on love and loss, memory and chivalry is as majestic in this slightly adjusted Redux as it was back in 1994, and is a colourful, enigmatic and energetic precursor to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and his own The Grandmaster.
The full verdict: Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) makes a living as the proprietor of a desert inn. Emotionally deadened following his lover’s marriage to his elder brother, he acts as an agent for penniless swordsmen or lost souls looking for revenge.
Huang Yaoshi (Leung Ka-fai) is a lethal blade whose cavalier attitude to life and love, plus a taste for a memory-wiping wine, has left a trail of recrimination.
Foremost amongst the vengeance seekers is Murong Yang (the incomparable Brigitte Lin), a young man whose sister was rejected by Huang, and Murong Yin (also Lin), the sister who wants her brother dead for trying to harm the lusty warrior.
Other characters passing through the inn looking for peace of mind are Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s near blind swordsman, Charlie Yeung’s peasant girl buying revenge with eggs and a mule, and Maggie Cheung as the object of Ouyang’s infatuation. Solace comes only through compromise as discovered by Jacky Cheung’s kind-hearted assassin.
Like its protagonists Ashes of Time has spent years in the wilderness, legal wrangling keeping the film largely unseen save for bootleg quality DVDs and VCDs.
Original reviews were critical, but in any version Ashes of Time is an excellent wuxia pien (heroic swordplay) movie. The elliptical season-chaptered plot grows clearer with subsequent viewings as a meditation on the curse of memory, the destructiveness of unrequited love, the cold comforts of chivalry, and the fleeting glory of battle.
Loosely based on Louis Cha’s four-volume saga The Eagle Shooting Heroes, director Wong creates an origins story for Cha’s characters, travelling back to their formative years before they became supernatural warriors.
While the focus is on characters over Sammo Hung’s spectacular action, Leung Chiu-wai’s swordsman battling an army of bandits, Jacky Cheung slashing through a warehouse of villains, and Lin explosively tackling her reflection on a lake channel the energy of classic 1960s and 70s Hong Kong and Japanese swordplay movies.
Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle match the ambitious storytelling with astonishing burnished red and glowing yellow visuals, transforming the Chinese desert into a beautiful, yet threatening dreamscape. Populated by an electric cast that, with Leslie Cheung now dead and Brigitte Lin retired, can never be reunited.
Sound and vision wise, the Redux is a vast improvement over washed-out DVDs previously available and according to Wong is his definitive cut. Content does not massively differ from the 1994 version save a tightened opening fifteen minutes (now minus one action scene).
Despite the boom in Asian cinema since its first release Ashes of Time Redux still stands as a masterpiece of its genre.
This review originally appeared on skymovies.com